The Wars for Viet Nam

William Appleman Williams 30 July 1965 Source: Vietnam Hearings: Voices from the Grassroots. Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier (D. -- Wisconsin) Waterloo, Wisconsin: Artcraft Press, 1965

(Transcript of public testimony at hearings held in the First Methodist Church, Madison, Wisconsin.)

pp. 42 -- 44

“. . . STATEMENT OF MR. WILLIAM A. WILLIAMS, PROFESSOR IN THE DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MADISON

PROF. WILLIAMS: Congressmen Kastenmeier and Rosenthal, I should like, at the outset, to speak to three charges made against the critics of American policy in Vietnam.

First: that some critics are Communists. This is true as fact. It is also true as fact that some extreme reactionaries are also critics of American policy in Vietnam. Both facts are incidental to the substantive issues. Criticism is properly judged by its relevance, by its evidence, and by its internal coherence and logic. If Communists offer a better critique than non-communists, which I deny, then the effective non-Communist response is to do better homework on the issues instead of forwarding fantasy and hearsay to Washington.

Second: that the critics lack the necessary information. I deny this to be the case. I deny it on the basis of my experience as a naval officer cleared for secret documents. I next deny it as an historian who has seen such data after the fact of failure. I finally deny it on the basis of several extended conversations with officials who have served, or are serving, in Vietnam. The information that some critics lack does not destroy the validity of their criticism.

Third: that, whatever mistakes we have made, we are caught in a situation of fact, and we have to see it through on the road we have chosen. This argument is part of a broader pattern of evasion. We humans are very prone, when we make a major mistake, to begin lying to ourselves. We go on indefinitely--until we pay the wrenching cost of the mistake, or until we muster the courage and the will to stop lying to ourselves. I am here to suggest that it is long past time we stop lying to ourselves about Vietnam.

Since it offers us a chance to stop such lying, this hearing is of course welcome. I acknowledge with great respect the patriotism and courage which have produced it.

But, I must say in all candor that, even more than the teach-ins, this hearing dramatizes the breakdown of representative and responsible government in foreign affairs.

If we are lucky, the Congress will some day hold hearings on Vietnam. But Congressmen are neither trained for, nor charged with, the responsibility of being historians. Their Constitutional duty is to participate in making history. Being persuaded by the President of the wisdom of the President's policy does not qualify as such participation. The President and his advisers have no monopoly on truth or wisdom. And, even if they did, the Constitution reserves to the citizens the fundamental right to make their own mistakes. Therein lies the essential element of greatness of the United States. Hence I am here to protest the failure of the Congress to honor its Constitutional obligations.

I am also here to protest the official argument that we can relax because we have the power to have our butter along with our guns. This is a disgusting and demeaning rationalization. The issue is that this government is using more and more guns in the desperate hope that violence against other human beings will give it time to find the moral courage and intelligence that it should-routinely-have had and used more than a decade ago.

This is the bankruptcy of policy. I am here to protest that bankruptcy. It is said that we are in Vietnam to honor a commitment to our friends. This claim is worth our close attention.

The friends were originally Great Britain and France, and the commitment was to their decision to terminate French colonialism in Vietnam. We formally hedged on that commitment when we refused to ratify the Geneva Agreement. But in initialing that document we remained morally bound to the commitment.

We violated that moral commitment when we undertook, unilaterally, to impose one specific government – the Diem Government – on South Vietnam. . . .”